From Glass Tubes to Glowing Statements: The Journey of Making Neon Signs

Neon is an excellent option to make your sign stand out, especially at night. This kind of sign is instantly recognizable and can be seen from Route 66 up to Las Vegas. It is deeply grounded in Americana and the iconic look is appropriate for any street in the city. Neon-colored signs are a fascinating mix of science and art. Let’s take a closer look at the process and find out what’s required to create these signs.


The principle behind neon signs is that it’s a tubes made of glass filled with gas. When an electric current is passed through the gas it glows. The most common gas used is neon, just like the name, but other gasses can be used. Heinrich Geissler, a scientist from the 19th century discovered that high-voltage alternating voltage could be passed through a low-pressure gas contained in the glass tube to produce a light source. Almost all gasses can conduct a current such as this, and the majority emit light, but not all can sustain that light. Common gasses like carbon dioxide could interfere with the effectiveness of the electrodes, leading the light to fade quickly.

Sir William Ramsay, Morris William Travers, and Morris William Travers discovered neon as well as krypton and argon in the year 1898. They were able to use these gases in glass tubes to make color-changing lighting sources. The tubes could not affect the efficiency of the electrodes. While neon gas produces bright reddish-orange colors, argon gas creates a grayish blue or violet.

The distillation of argon and neon remained very expensive and difficult to access for a while, but in 1907 Georges Claude of France and Karl von Linde of Germany were working on a process to make oxygen for hospitals and discovered that rare gasses were a byproduct of the process. Claude went in search of a method to make use of these gases, building upon the research of Ramsay and Travers and advertising neon lights and even displaying one at an exhibition in Paris in 1910. He had already created the first commercial display in 1912. In 1915, he could establish a company and even offer franchises.

Earle C. Anthony, a Los Angeles car dealer, bought two of Claude’s signs for use at his Packard dealership. He later introduced custom neon signs to America. Slowly but surely the signs grew in popularity and were spotted in casinos in Las Vegas in the 1940s. However, in the 1950s and 1960s, the true neon signs suffered when plastic signs illuminated by fluorescent tubes from the inside were more popular. However, in recent years neon signs have been returning to prominence and can be seen everywhere.

How is it made?

The tubing is the initial step in manufacturing neon signs. The long glass tubes are cleaned before being placed in a machine to blow a liquid phosphor suspension up inside the tubes. Then, it will let it run down and then cover the tubes. The tubes are then dried in an oven. If a tube is to have a different color than red, orange or blue, tints of color are added to the tubes in a similar way to the coating machine. The blue and red tubes could be left uncolored since gasses argon and neon will create these colors on their own.

Then, the tube must be bent to form. A full-size template is created using asbestos. The tubing is carefully heated and softened by the burners. The tubes are bent by hand to match the template. Moreover, tube benders can’t wear gloves because they have to feel the heat and softness of the glass to be able to perform the bend at just the right moment. Since there is a risk of the tubing’s softness falling apart and causing damage to the surrounding area, a tube, known as a blow hose is attached to the opposite side of the tubing and the tube bender slowly blows the hose into return the warm tubing to its original size.

To get rid of impurities, the tubing must be subject to bombarding. The tube is then heated and vacuum extracted the air. The tube will not hold its light when this step is not completed. After the tubes cool and they’re filled with purified gas and sealed. When argon gas is utilized in the majority of cases, some mercury is added to increase the intensity.

The tube is filled with the gas intended for it and is then put through an aging process, which is often referred to as “burning in the tube.” This lets the gas stay stable and work properly. A transformer is connected to the electrodes, and it runs an electric current through the tube that is generally a bit larger than the current the sign will run on, and is left to glow for a while. The tube must be illuminated for approximately 15 minutes with neon gas. But, argon may be used and lasts for many hours. If there are any issues during the process (e.g. flickering or hot spot) The tube should be opened, bombarded, and filled.

When this phase of the process is complete then the sign is ready to be mounted! It depends on the size of the sign. Large custom neon signs may take several months to install. But, the bright glow and vibrant colors of neon signs of the past are worth the wait!

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